Yes. Si. Oui. Ja. Ken. Hai. Sim.
In almost every language, "yes" is a little word. When spoken freely, without a sense of obligation, within the context of love, our "yes" carries power. It indicates a freedom of choice and a motivation of love and trust.
Have you ever experienced a moment where your world just broke?
Most of us have, to some degree or another.
For me, I had two such moments very close to each other. They changed my world, redefined almost everything I thought I knew about God, and through that, changed me.
The first, unfortunately, is not a story I can share publicly, because other people’s lives would be impacted. It’s enough to know that the moment happened on February 11, 2015, and triggered the deepest grief cycle of my life up to that point.
A little less than four months later, I was still deeply in mourning when my youngest son (who had just turned three) was killed because he’d thought it would be clever to dash out behind Daddy’s truck to “hide” as my husband was backing up.
When I was a kid, my favorite game to play was "Teacher." Guess who always played the teacher.
I took things pretty seriously. So seriously, in fact, the other kids stopped wanting to play with me. I may or may not have wanted them to do actual school work and pay attention to my lectures.
I also loved music. Listening, singing, performing. I played the piano for years. So even though I'd fallen in love with writing in high school and even declared English as my original university major, it was no surprise to anyone when I switched my focus to music education.
Not long after changing my major, I took a piano pedagogy class and established my own private studio. I began with six little girls and big dreams.
Around the same time, the leadership of our small Baptist church in Marion, Louisiana asked me to begin a children's choir. They wanted the kids to perform a musical at Christmas. The project wasn't my idea, but I threw all I had into it. We not only performed. I wrote my own productions. Plural. As in one at Christmas, another at Easter, and another at the beginning of summer.
My first children's choir.
Here, I'm modeling three of the props used in my original (and hilarious) children's production of Joshua and the Jericho Thugs—gold chains, plastic crowbars and kazoos. That's right. Kazoos.
After three productions, I decided I wanted the kids to learn to read music, so we worked during the summer using recorders. Because—obviously—I’m a glutton for punishment, but also because I didn't know a better way.
My students loved me, shortcomings and all. (I was pretty fond of them, too.) Most of my private students caught my passion for singing and acting. Carson Richman, the tall girl standing at my right in the photo below, has been involved in choir and theater since she was in my studio. She joined the LSU theater program this fall. Sarah Katherine McCallum, the little brunette on my left has also stayed involved in music and theater. She now takes lessons from one of my vocal instructors, Dr. Claire Vangelisti at ULM, is involved in the Strauss Youth Academy for the Arts in Monroe, and was the fourth runner up at the Miss America Outstanding Teen pageant this year. I can't take credit for how incredible she is now, but I can take credit for the seed. Almost all of the students who came through my studio still actively enjoy music. Which was half my goal.
Part of me knew there was more to give them, but I lacked the skill set to give it, I didn't know how to acquire the skill set, and I ran out of time to figure it out. I became happily distracted with the joys of motherhood in 2009 and scraped by until I became not so happily distracted with the grim realities of chronic disease in 2011.
I kept hoping to get my disease under enough control to teach again, but after two years of frequent anaphylactic reactions, arthritis, carpal tunnel, fibromyalgia, brain fog, and necessary isolation followed by a diagnosis of Mast Cell Activation Syndrome—which is incurable—my hopes died and my inner music teacher with them. Like died died.
I laid her to rest in a locked box, buried her, mourned at the funeral, threw a few flowers on the grave and moved on. It hurt too much to dwell on the loss. Apparently, God wanted me to write. I wasn't supposed to teach music. I was never that great at it anyway, I told myself. So it was just as well.
Meanwhile, my friend Jarrod Richey was doing some exciting things with music education. I met Jarrod in music school at Louisiana Tech. We sang in choir together and both earned our degrees in Music Education.
He went on to earn his Master's in Choral Conducting at ULM and later his complete certification in Kodály methodology. A few years ago, he was hired as the music teacher at Geneva Christian Academy, a small Classical Christian school in Monroe, Louisiana.
Jarrod had been preaching the advantages of Classical Christian education since before Micah was born, so I became interested in the school. When the time came to make a decision about Micah's kindergarten year, I was too sick to investigate the school in person, so I sent my mom.
She reported the school would be an excellent choice based upon the educational approach alone. But when she observed Jarrod teach music to the little ones, she knew it was the right school. "I wept," she said.
The summer before Micah started school, Jarrod put together a Christian music camp called Jubilate Deo. Excited about the opportunity, I enrolled Micah...who came down with viral tonsillitis the second day of camp and couldn't continue. But I heard great things.
Micah began school at Geneva that fall. He would come home and absently sing the folk songs he learned in music class. I loved it. Because my Music Methods college professor was Kodály trained, I understood and appreciated what Jarrod was aiming to accomplish. Over the course of the year, Micah became a tuneful singer. I'd get papers every once in a while of dictated rhythms he'd copied down. Keep in mind—he was in kindergarten.
Every now and then, I would run into Jarrod at the school. "When God heals you, you've got to come help me up here," he would say.
I'd smile and think to myself, "That would be nice."
The following summer, I sat in the back row of the Jubilate Deo Music Camp concert, my mask veiling my slack-jawed expression. I couldn't believe my ears. In five days—five days—Jarrod and his staff had put together an outstanding program.
I, too, wept.
And then about three months later, God began to heal my body.
First, reactions to things I touched disappeared. Then my outdoor temperature reactions. Then my airborne triggers. Then my food reactions. Then my pain and arthritis. Then my energy returned. As much energy as can be expected of a 30-something mom of young kids, anyway. By April 2016, I lived like everyone else. Contrary to scientific explanation and medical prognosis. A miracle had taken place.
God began bringing all of me back to life. I enjoyed renewed intimacy with Him. I was the healthiest I'd ever been. Everything that had died—my personality, my gifts, motherhood, friendship, community, ministry—wasn’t only coming back. It was coming back better.
Except for music. I was done with all of that. You can't be away from music for five years and expect to be any good at it. I didn't even know if I would like teaching music again. Besides, I was going to be a writer.
Sometimes, I think God gets his kicks by proving me wrong.
This past spring, I was blindsided one night by an intense longing to lead others in worship. I'd never felt that before. What did it mean?
My classically-trained, non-belting voice doesn't fit the current worship style of the Church. I sound more like a retro Disney princess than a pop star. Most worship choruses aren't even in a singable range for me. And I've always thought strong singers should be dispersed throughout the congregation to encourage and serve weaker singers. Because the congregation was never meant to be a crowd of spectators, but an army of worshipers.
My call wasn't to the stage. I knew that much. But I couldn't make sense of it.
Around the same time, I was wrestling with my future. I was well. There were expectations. What should I be doing? Writing, obviously. But I wasn't writing! Not anything that would make money anyway. And I was thinking more and more about music and what I was supposed to do with my gifting and education. A lot had been invested there.
One day, we were driving home from church and Brandon said something like, "Why don't you talk to Jarrod about the tuition discount for Geneva teachers and see what kind of deal they might make us?"
I'm embarrassed to admit this, but...I wigged. I totally wigged.
"What are you talking about? I can't teach! I've been away from music for five years. Five YEARS!!! I don't even like it anymore. I'm a writer. If you need me to work, I'll write!"
I was terrified. Terrified to give up my writing dream. Terrified of trying to resuscitate something that was long dead. Terrified I wouldn't love teaching or music or the classroom anymore. Terrified to fail. Terrified that working would pull me away from the ministries I was involved in and had grown to love. Terrified, I tell you.
Despite my overreaction, Brandon remained calm. "Well...if you plan to make money by writing...you probably need to actually...write."
*a series of tiny explosions in my brain*
I'm not going to admit my response to that. But in summary, the truth hurts and pain makes me angry.
Even though our conversation didn't end well that day, I continued to wrestle privately. Because here's the thing—God often speaks through my husband, and I never want to tell God "no" again. Not about anything. Not even the small things only He and I know about. All I want to say for the rest of eternity is "Yes...yes...yes."
Here's what I knew—Brandon would like me to work part time to help pay for the kids' tuition. I needed an occupation while the kids were in school. I felt an inexplicable draw toward music and leading worship. But I wanted to write, and teaching would interfere with writing. And who knew if Jarrod had been serious anyway?
"Lord," I remember saying, "I don't know what to do or what you're doing. But I trust you. I'll do whatever you say. Just make things as clear as I need them so I can obey."
And you know...He did.
To be continued...
This month, I taught a journaling class to the women of Project 41's Esther's Academy. I'm unlikely to forget the experience.
These girls are amazing--a visible testimony of the power of Jesus Christ to transform a life.
In the brief time I've known them, they've become my heroes. Though aware they're still deep in process, they continue to lean into Jesus day after day. In the face of failure, discouragement, and fear of the unknown, they continue to walk in victory.
You don't often encounter courage like theirs.
Almost from Day One, they allowed me to participate in their struggles, hangups, and hardships. Who does that?
Their vulnerability inspired my own. I committed myself to complete each assignment along with them and share a little of what I'd written at each class.
Two weeks ago, I asked them to write a letter. For therapeutic purposes.
They chose the recipient. The letter could be addressed to a friend or enemy--living or deceased. It could be to God or to a part of themselves--past, present, or future.
The chief requirement was honesty. Grit.
I think I struggled with my letter more than they did. I couldn't decide on who to write it to. Who I needed to write it to.
So I asked the Lord about it.
Over the course of the week, through various circumstances, He revealed a part of myself I thought we'd handled.
In a way, we had handled it. It no longer mastered me, but it was still there.
A year ago, I physically trembled every time I stepped outside. Back then, the whole world seemed out to get me. And it kind of was. Wasps, ants, heat, cold, random crop dusters loosing herbicides over nearby fields. So many things...
My case of "the shakes" ended several months ago. Then the Lord further dealt with my fear during my prayer session. But apparently, it left behind a few personal belongings in the nightstand drawer so we'd have an excuse to see each other again.
So I wrote Fear a breakup letter the morning before class. I'm good at breakup letters.
(Fun fact: I once wrote a breakup letter for a friend of mine. The recipient was my husband. We started dating six months later.)
We've been together a long time, but you haven't been a very good friend. You've bullied me until I'm afraid of everything. Even things I used to enjoy.
I still can't relax when I go outside. I'm too busy thinking about where the wasps are. I want to go outside and not think about blankety-blank wasps!
I want to write without neurosis. To imagine teaching again without feeling nauseated. To speak when the Spirit leads without fear of being wrong. To obey God about leading worship without flashbacks to every musical mistake I've ever made. Without worrying that people won't like my voice because it's different than the current preferred style.
Thanks to you, I'm afraid to fail, afraid to succeed, afraid to be noticed, and afraid to be ignored. I am a hot, crazy mess.
I'm tired of trying to please you. You set impossible standards and never stop raising the bar. In short--you're a bitch, and I don't like you.
So go. We're done. I'm pretty committed to this whole God thing, in case you haven't noticed. I love Him. I'm in love. And He loves me--succeed or fail. He fulfilled every standard you've set. Neither performance nor popularity define me. I'm His. His is who I am.
Consider this my resistance. I'm already submitted to God. All that's left is for you to flee. I command you to go in Jesus' name.
Now, you may write this off as a silly exercise. But let me tell you what's happened since I wrote this thang:
- I'm writing again. Not my novel, but I'm writing.
- I've talked to my small group leader about leading worship.
- I've reached out to a friend who's willing to teach me how to accompany praise and worship choruses. I hope to meet with her next week and start leading worship this summer.
- I feel easier about the idea of teaching music again if that's where God leads me.
- I'm not constantly looking for wasps when I go outside. Sometimes, I don't think of them at all.
- The chronic cold and sinus issues I've had for two months dried up the day I wrote that letter.
Coincidence? Make of it what you will. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the extra drawer space.
I will hedge up your way with thorns,
And wall her in,
So that she cannot find her paths.
But not overtake them;
Yes, she will seek them, but not find them.
Then she will say,
‘I will go and return to my first husband,
For then it was better for me than now.'
I'll share one of my recent favorites. But first, a little backstory...
During my illness, pain was a significant problem for me. I had arthritis, fibromyalgia, and carpal tunnel, which stole any joy I took in playing the piano. So I stopped. My piano has stood mostly silent for the past few years, serving as little more than a fixture to remind me of times gone by.
Lately, quiet calls summon me back to music, most of which I've been able to muffle with practiced excuses--
Which, of course, translates into, "I'm scared to death I'll fail."
But when Mom came to me on behalf of a friend whose mother had just died, a friend who'd prayed for me over the years, my excuses didn't matter. Besides, if I didn't step in, my sick dad and has-never-sung-for-a-crowd-in-her-life mother would be left to sing a duet to canned music, and I couldn't have that.
So I dusted off the keys. Opened a hymnal. And lo and behold, my brain recalled the old language. My hands remembered what to do. What's more, I managed to sing and play at the same time.
On the ride to Winnsboro, I tried not to think of past funeral performance debacles. The words of a former professor echoed in my mind--"Music is a service profession."
This is service, not performance. It's an expression of love, not a reflection on myself.
Oh, well. I have a point.
Y'all, God isn't looking for professionals; He's looking for people to say "yes." In our weakness, He shows Himself strong.
These days I eat what I want and do what I want. I'm medication free. My pain's gone. My energy's back. Most nights, I sleep like a baby. And I *ahem* use the bathroom like a normal person now.
Brandon's in a fun season. I love watching him grow and exercise his faith. Second to being God's child, being Brandon's wife is the highest honor I enjoy on earth.
I plan to get back to writing--the dollar-earning variety--soon. I'm still trying to figure out where it fits with the rest of my responsibilities. But I'm determined to give this writing career thing a real shot before I agree to head back to the classroom. Which means I have to sell a few books by this time next year. So yeah...feel free to peer pressure me back into the habit. I'm still debating whether I should work on my short story collection or my novel. I don't feel there's a wrong choice, but there might be a more strategic one.
Pretty soon, I'll move my blog to my own domain. You can support me by subscribing and sharing when I do.
For the month of April, I'm teaching a journaling class for Project 41's Esther's Academy. Enjoying that. Love the awesome women in the program. After the class ends, I'll focus on developing the prayer ministry for P41 and nurturing my friendships with the women.
I fall more in love with my new family all the time. When I think of the gift God has given me in them, I get weepy. Every time. Two of the women have become good friends of mine. I'll travel to Brazil with one of them in September. The Lord has called me to short term international mission work for the first time in 16 years. I'm thrilled and terrified.
But ya know...that's life with Jesus. In or out of the cage.
Some are a life sentence.
Which is easier to bear?
A small cell or the chair?
A cage or a casket?
No one knows
and both are hard
on the sick one and the watchers.
Some of us die in here,
but I believe
there is a key
an early release.
Or so I've been told
by the Prison Ward
who is kind and good and wise and hard.
The door will open
when the cell has done its work
and the bars have made me free.
Or so I believe.
But all I see
are steel and concrete.
Spare walls and a lonely lock
mock my faith.
I smell sky and pine.
Sun shafts through the window.
Voices chuckle and cluck,
a murmur through stone,
a reminder of what I'm missing,
a promise of what's to come.
But the Warden visits me--
and this place has be-come
"For a while," He corrects.
So I believe.
These days I'm either enjoying my freedom or recovering from it.
I'm not complaining. I'm adjusting.
I LOVE the season I'm in, but it isn't easy.
God has given a magic thread to every believer. His name is the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit knows the mind of the Father, who has written my story. He leads me where I should go. Many times, I don't understand where He leads, but if I will hang on and press on, I'll find my way. And maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to lead a Curdie or two to the safety of God's arms along the way.
I appreciate your prayers as I adjust.
I'm so happy right now. It may seem I don't need prayer. That assumption is incorrect.
I have so many questions. I don't know where the thread is taking me, and my feet are dragging half the time. I long to write, but can't manage it, which is kind of frustrating. As I'm able to focus less on myself, my eyes open to the devastation around me. While the miracle does my family good, the last four years have also left a mark. We're all kind of damaged, and now it's time to pick up the pieces and rebuild. Reconstruction is hard work.
So yeah...keep praying! And thank you for all the prayers that have come before. I hope you, too, are reveling in the miracle God has performed. You're part of it, after all. I hope it reveals an attribute of God you never noticed before, and leads you to marvel before His throne.
As I said to a friend this morning, prayer is never wasted time. And it's the perfect answer to every adjustment life throws at us.
Journaling is often described as a lost or dying art. Maybe it is. I lack necessary statistics to prove or disprove that hypothesis, but I don't know many people who do it. My mom. My mentor. A couple of my friends.
The reason for this, I think, is that journaling is a discipline before it's an art, and discipline is dying.
It's understandable, if you think about it. There are countless demands on our time and energy. It's kind of a miracle you're even reading this post right now. The mere act of reading demands your time and mental real estate, and what you're reading is about yet another discipline in addition to the ones already on your plate. Not to mention, this particular discipline reeks with the odor of your middle school classroom and all its unpleasantness.
I mean, what adult wants to assign themselves homework, right? (Besides me.) Who has time to doodle in a notebook for 20 minutes several days a week--or ever--when they're already trying to exercise, eat healthy, pray, read more books, and organize their homes while working, parenting, and sleeping enough to stay alive? Not to mention keeping up with The Voice and scrolling the Facebook newsfeed...
Adulting is hard.
But you know what I've learned about myself? I have time to do the things I want to do. I always have. When I was a full time music student, a part time piano and voice teacher, a children's minister, and had a 30 minute commute (minimum) everywhere I had to go. When I was a working mom. When I was so sick I could barely pick up a pen.
I want to journal, so I do.
But WHY do it?
Throughout the centuries, people have journaled for many reasons. To preserve history, for one. For entertainment. For posterity. The written word is longer-lasting than the human body, so people write what they want to be remembered.
Today, psychologists tell us that journaling is good for our health. It relieves stress and depression, and strengthens immune cells. Some research indicates journaling actually relieves the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
But I don't journal for those reasons. As a believer in Christ, I don't feel pressure to be remembered. And I don't write as a perk to my health.
I write because I must. I need to write like I need to eat. Well...almost.
That being said, I do have reasons to journal in addition to blogging, Facebooking, tweeting, texting, emailing, and novel...ing.
My Journaling History
I began to write poems, short vignettes, and various tidbits as soon as I could write. My parents kept some of them.
I began a formal journal in the 5th grade. Mrs. Pilgreen assigned a writing prompt each day, and required us to write a three to five sentence paragraph in our speckled notebooks. (To this day, I still love speckled notebooks.) Overachiever that I was, I often filled the page.
Mostly, I wrote
Since then, I've tried various forms of journaling--scrapbooking, blogging, Facebook, even food journaling. Art journaling was a FAIL. For obvious reasons.
But I always come home to the old school long-hand journal.
When I Write
I write when I have something to write about. But not always.
I could write every day. Inspiration is everywhere. In God. In Superman. In my little gingers. In nature. In the things I read. In what people say. In how people are. I'm always watching, observing. It's what writers do.
What I Write
There are all kinds of things in my journal. A record of events and how I feel about them. Random thoughts. Quotes. Bible verses. Meditations. Prayers. Dreams. Visions. Prayer lists. Gratitude lists. Cute things my kids say. Goals. Proudest moments. Darkest secrets.
My journal is my confessional and my trophy room.
Which brings me to...
Why I Write
I'm a pretty open book. Chances are, if you ask me something point blank, I'll tell you the truth and probably more of it than you want to know
BUT any time I present a part of myself to the public, whether that public consists of one person or a thousand, I edit. At least a little. (You do it, too, even if you're unaware of the fact.)
You'll find the fluffiest, most cuddly version of Melissa Keaster on Facebook and Twitter. Or in a scrapbook. You'll get a peek beneath my skin on my blog and in my fiction. But my journal? That's where you'll see the good, the bad, and the ugly of my soul. Which is why some of my journals have warnings in the front (i.e. "Do not read without my permission unless I am dead"). I do the least amount of editing there, which makes for interesting (and sometimes entertaining) material.
Journaling is where I get to be as honest as I know how to be, but that's only the foundational reason I do it. Here's an arbitrary list of other reasons off the top of my head:
- To process life with integrity
- To remember God's faithfulness
- To help others remember God's faithfulness
- To record prayers and answers
- To record prophecies and their fulfillment
- To record goals and progress
- To collect favorite quotes
- To capture my wrestling matches with God
- To find out what I think about things; sometimes I don't know until I write
- To contemplate Scripture
- To get my words out (I have a lot of them.)
- To have a safe place for my wildest, weirdest thoughts
- To write the things people may not have time, interest, or patience to hear
- To tattle on people to God (Yes, really...though you should know--any time you tattle to God, he always turns it around on you.)
- To remember cute things my kids say
- Blog fodder
- Novel fodder
- Because sometimes people can't handle my joy, sorrow, grief, or passion, but God and blank pages can (Tip: Keep a tissue or handkerchief handy; you don't want to blot the pages with tears.)
- To leave something of myself for my kids and grandkids to enjoy
- To show my descendants how God loves us from birth to old age and beyond
What about you? Do you journal? What are your reasons? If you don't, do ya wanna start? Need tips? Encouragement? Accountability? I'll be happy to help you along.
I love, love, love comments, so feel free to drop me a line and ask for my help. I'm supposed to teach a journaling class soon, and it would be great to get in some practice beforehand!
Last spring, I wrote this scene in which Declan (a healer) entices Mara (an ex-prostitute and recovering alcoholic) to eat by making ice cream, a rare treat in my medieval-esque world. The ice cream is shared six ways among the three women and the three men of the household, so everyone gets just enough. But when Mara finishes her portion, Declan quietly takes her empty bowl and replaces it with his full one.
After I wrote this, I asked the Lord, bold as brass, "Will you give me an extra bowl of ice cream?"
It wasn't that I didn't have enough. I had Him. But in the midst of sickness, injustice, grief, and loneliness, I wanted assurance that God was kind.
Now, I know "kind" doesn't always mean "nice." God isn't nice. Or safe.
But as Mr. Beaver will tell you, He is good, and that's sort of the same thing.
I've written about how God healed my hands. Only two weeks later, there's more to report!
The video I took this morning...mainly for the entertainment of Madonna Gil and Torey Pop Morgan. You're welcome. ;)
Posted by Melissa Chapman Keaster on Thursday, December 3, 2015
You are so brave and awesome to put up with my experiments after the horrors you've lived. Thank you, thank you for believing with me. Most men would've left long ago, but you've stayed. Enjoy God's reward, my love, as He restores to us the years the locusts have eaten.
I'm not completely mask-free yet. I dropped off Sara at dance yesterday without my mask and regretted it. Something (Lysol maybe?) had been recently sprayed in the area. Not fun, but I didn't react as I once would have. Also, freshly mowed grass and gasoline are apparently still problematic.
"Trust in the Lord and do good. Dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness." (Psalm 37:3)
Here's a spoon. Dig in!
Now that I've crossed the NaNoWriMo finish line, I thought I'd give you all a long overdue update. A lot has happened in the past few weeks.
But first, let's talk about NaNo.
I finished the morning of the 25th. That's 50k words in 25 days (aka my fastest writing pace ever). I managed a few hundred words on Thanksgiving, but between the holiday, recovering from the holiday, and the gloomy weather, I just haven't had it in me to write any more. I'm all...
Even though it's totally not. I need to complete the draft before Christmas if I want to release 2-3 books next year. And call me crazy, but I do.
NaNo isn't my only news. God has been on a prayer answering roll.
1) Ministry Opportunities:
One of the things I've missed during this illness is ministry. God has given me plenty of one on one ministry opportunities over the years, and I've relished those, but I longed for something...more.
Back in January, I researched human trafficking and sexual slavery for my novel, Eleora.
Here's the thing--all information comes with a burden. When you learn something, you have to do something with what you learn, whether you act on it, discard it, or choose to ignore it. Once I knew what was happening in the world--what was happening in my home town--I couldn't do nothing.
I met with Lindsey Nadler of Project 41 in October to go over her beta reader notes for Eleora. Prior to the meeting, I had prayed God would provide a way for me to become involved with the ministry. I told Lindsey of my interest and how I was waiting for God to heal me, to which she said, "If you're serious about wanting to get involved, I need someone to organize a prayer team. We need people who will take prayer seriously."
Why am I always surprised when God answers my prayers? I mean, we have a pretty good rapport going, and yet I was so stunned I barely got the words out--"I'm your girl."
Our team meets via conference call at 5am on Wednesday mornings. I'm no morning person, but I love denying myself that bit of sleep to meet with others to pray. I can't think of a better way to start my day.
Lindsey also invited me to teach a writing and journaling class as soon as I'm well enough to do so.
Back in the summer, the Lord began speaking to me about pursuing community again. He brought the subject to me through Scripture, prayer, blog posts, conversations, an expert consult on the book of Job. The message was everywhere: Pursue Community.
I was confused. Again and again, I asked, "What do you mean, God?"
Well, things have become clearer.
For months, I've prayed for writer friends. Women in particular. (Not that I'm not super thankful for Len Woods and Leo Honeycutt.)
After taking a couple of Kristen Lamb's writing classes and surviving her Death Star editing treatment, I joined WANATribe, a social network for writers. Most of the members are women! Kristen and I are now pals, an unexpected gift. A handful of us meet in the chat room for "writing sprints," in which we write as many words as we can in 30 minutes and compare counts. (It's writing as a competitive sport. It's awesome.) And I met kindred spirit Talena Winters on Thanksgiving Day.
In addition to a writing community, God has given me the gift of...
"God places the lonely in families..." Psalm 68:6
When I think of the community the Lord brought my lonely little soul into, I think of the word "family."
The connection was instant.
When I walked into the Siegmund's home on Friday night, October 16, the love of the Lord was so thick in that place I smelled it on the air. I tasted it. I waded through it on the way to my seat. I breathed it in, and basked in it all evening long.
I remember looking around the room that night. No one knew because I wore my mask, but I was grinning for most of worship and Bible study, thinking to the Lord, Thank you. Thank you. I've found my people!
Guys, this weirdo has found a home. Even as I write that, I tear up.
The story of how God led me to this group and what I've experienced since deserves its own post, but honestly...it's a gift so personal and precious I'm not sure I want to share it. Not here. I tremble at the thought. I don't think you could understand if I did. For now, I'll just hold it in my heart and savor the kindness of God. But if you ever want to hear the story, don't hesitate to ask. I'll do my best to describe the indescribable.
And consider this--when God prompts you to do something that confuses you or seems a little crazy at the time, trust Him. Act. He not only provides the means to obey, but the reward is breathtaking.
And sometimes miraculous.
3) Physical Healing:
Yes, you read that right. I'm experiencing legitimate physical healing.
It's been going on for a while, but it can take time to notice. You can't miss a new symptom when it shows up, but when symptoms begin to disappear? It's hard to keep track. You go about your life as it is and then one day you look for the old symptom, and it's not there.
Either late this summer or early this autumn, I noticed my fevers were gone. I used to spike a temp with every reaction and every time my monthly visitor came to call. Not anymore.
October 12 was my last bad bout of histamine-induced insomnia. Since then, I've fallen asleep with (relative) ease, and I (usually) sleep through the night. And get this--more often than not, I wake up feeling rested. If you have an autoimmune disease, you know what a miracle that is.
At my most recent check up with Dr. Yakaboski, my adrenal health tested nearly perfect. My last episode of anaphylaxsis was in the spring. Since June, I've enjoyed regular church attendance. And not once have I left community/prayer group sick. Not once!
While all of this is a very big deal, I'm pretty excited about my latest healed symptom, which followed the heels of a very special experience.
My community group has recently trained in a program called Christian Healing Ministries. CHM is an intercessory ministry for people in need of spiritual, emotional, and physical healing.
I was the first client to apply.
The week before my session, which was the Sunday night before Thanksgiving, I prayed. A lot. I knew God was going to heal a few specific spiritual battles and emotional issues, but I also sensed I would experience physical healing that night.
So I shared my thoughts with Brandon, Mom, Nona, the kids, and a few of my friends, and asked them to pray.
All week I prayed, "Lord, I come to you with open hands, ready to receive anything you want to give me."
The night before and throughout the day of the session, Sara would burst into spontaneous prayer--"Dear Jesus, please help Mama be able to handle da cold so we can teach her how to play in da snow."
I know she's four, but it felt prophetic, y'all.
I approached the session with a little bit of fear and lots of expectation. It was very different from anything I've ever experienced, but extremely powerful, personal, and healing on all fronts.
Once again, the experience was far too precious and personal to share in detail, but I would like to share this one very special thing:
To give you a point of reference, I took this photo one night a while back after peeling refrigerated sweet potatoes with nitrile gloves on. The photo quality doesn't do it justice, but you get the idea.
What I love about this:
1) The Lord healed something my kids could see. They'd been praying for me to be healed. God answered with something visible, boosting that childlike faith. I don't have a ton of visible symptoms, so that's kind of special.
2) God's thoughtfulness and kindness. For over a year, I've accepted discomfort as part of the cooking process. It is what it is and all that. And then, God heals this symptom the week of Thanksgiving before the biggest cooking day and season of the year. Amazing.
3) It's funny. Better yet, it's witty. Look at the specific prayers again. I prayed, "Lord, I come to you with open hands." Sara said again and again, "...please help Mama be able to handle da cold."
I love a good pun. So when the Lord showed me the connection, I laughed and laughed and laughed. And then I cried.
God speaks my language. He shares my sense of humor. I love it.
The winds are changing.
Do you feel it? I do. This season brings healing, growth, and adventure. And before the end of it, maybe even that party Jenny and I talked about throwing.
Mercy, I miss that girl. How many times have I wanted to call her this week? When I close my eyes, I see her smile. I hear her laughter and hallelujahs. I suppose it's comforting to know she knows and she's celebrating in heaven.
Damn cancer to hell.
God isn't finished.
I believe healing continues from here. The next time the temperature dips below 40 degrees, I fully expect to walk outside without a coat, breathe deeply, feel a bit chilled, and be fine.
Lindsey, if you're reading this, my answer is, "Yes. I'd love to teach that writing class." Somehow, God will work out the details.
My new family is stretching me, challenging me. I'm looking harder at my Bible, realizing that maybe I only believe half the paradox--that another half exists--and that I just haven't seen it because I tend to limit God to my experience and what I've been told rather than what the Bible says at face value. Grappling--it's good exercise.
And mixing with people again...wow. That's growth in itself.
With ministry opportunities, new friends, new thoughts, and book releases on the horizon, I'd say there's plenty of adventure ahead.
Onward and upward.
Other appropriate titles for this post could be "How My Literary Aspirations Derailed" or "How Melissa Lost Her Mind" or even "The Cliffs of Insanity." But that last one might be a copyright infringement.
Why would a writer decide to begin a brand new project when she was ready to publish two weeks ago? Minus the cash and a couple more drafts, of course.
Well, you see, it's like this...
Two weeks ago, the only beta readers who'd completed the novel and offered feedback were family members.
Family members are cheerleaders. Newbie writers need cheerleaders so our insecurities don't smear us over toast for second breakfast. But while cheerleaders are necessary and awesome, they're biased. They root for the home team even when the home team sucks. (I'd post a pic of the Dallas Cowboys' cheerleaders here, but they don't wear enough clothes.)
Not that my book sucks. It doesn't. Everyone likes it. Or at least, they say they do.
Here's what bothered me--no one loved it. Call me vain, but it's kind of important to me that some people love it.
I didn't understand the reason until objective feedback began rolling in. Which, of course, isn't nearly as much fun as cheerleader feedback. But it's absolutely vital if you want to produce a good story.
Beta Reader 1: "Enjoyed Eleora very much." Felt it was almost ready for publication, but wanted more context for the villain and the lore.
Beta Reader 2: Liked it. Said it was "intense."
Beta Reader 3: Liked it. Wanted more history of the characters and lore. Felt the pacing was too fast and a bit choppy in places she wanted to linger. Felt the world needed to be fleshed out more. Thought it was an earlier draft than it actually was.
Beta Reader 4: Thought it was great, but the pacing was rushed. She wanted more background about two main characters' relationship, and felt all the characters could be developed, especially the main characters. Here's the real kicker--it seemed to her I had written two books instead of one.
My initial response to Beta Reader 4: *blink, blink*
I wasn't immediately sure Beta Reader 4 was right, but I took the note. She has a great handle on what makes a good book, and I had prayed for fruitful feedback from this particular reader. I couldn't afford to dismiss anything she said without further thought and prayer. I outlined a prequel novella to Eleora, secretly hoping that would be enough so I wouldn't have to rewrite the thing. AGAIN.
BUT. I'd rather take my time and write a great book than rush to produce a good one.
Or a bad one, which Eleora, as is, may very well be.
Fortunately, God is pretty gentle with me. I was going full speed ahead--HUZZAH!!--then between beta readers 2 and 3, I felt a familiar Spirit signal--Slow down. Relax. Wait.
At first, I thought the message had to do with money. It costs a minimum of $2,000 to self-publish well, and we don't have $2,000 lying around at the moment. But it quickly became apparent the flashing yellow light had to do with the writing, not the cash.
"Wait" is a hard message to receive, especially when the problem lies with me, but it better prepared me to receive Beta Reader 3's perspective that Eleora was still in an early draft. (Though it was the fourth!) Beta Reader 3's perspective helped me better receive Beta Reader 4's. And Beta Reader 4 prepared me to be edited by author/blogger/editor Kristen Lamb.
Back in August, I signed up for Kristen's "First Five Pages" writing class, and bought the platinum package to receive 40 pages of edits. Who better to speak into my work than a writing professional/stranger/give-it-to-you-straight-burn-and-all kind of gal?
Kristen Lamb's editing has been fondly dubbed "The Death Star Treatment" by someone far wittier than me. It's an apt description. My favorite phrases from Kristen's edit are "The uncle is a mustache-twirler. He's so evil, I don't buy it. I'd put the book down," "Ew. Gross imagery," and "This character is too dumb to live."
I'm happy to say I survived "The Death Star Treatment"--without tears!--which is more than I can say for the planet Alderaan. In Alderaan's defense, I've had lots of practice.
Kristen knows what she's talking about. The problems are there. I just didn't see them until she pointed them out. So tactfully. With maple syrup, whipped cream, and a cherry on top.
In all seriousness, Kristen's heart is to help writers produce the best product possible so the trolls don't eat us alive (aaaaaaand to prepare us for when they do anyway.)
And she didn't leave me without encouragement. She said I totally hooked her in some places. There were times she had to put the book down to tend to something and didn't want to. That my prose is (mostly) pretty. That I have real talent. That I can, in fact, write. So she left me in a good place, ready to fix my problems.
To prepare for the following plot consult, I prayed. Odd way to prepare, you may think, but everything I've asked of the Lord concerning this book, He's done. Why stop?
This time, I asked for three things:
1) That Kristen would be God's mouthpiece to me concerning my story.
2) That Kristen and I would connect and like each other. (Writers gotta have writer friends.)
3) That God would use Kristen to let me know whether or not to participate in NaNoWriMo, which I had been considering since meeting with Beta Reader 4.
Within the first 15 minutes of the consult, Kristen diagnosed my problem--I have five or six stories crammed into 400 pages. Just as Beta Reader 4 suggested. So we took the first 40 pages, which was the section she read, and plotted it out into a full-length novel.
Oh, yeah. (Check out my premise here.)
So I said, "I'm guessing, I should shelf the bulk of my book for now and focus on this."
Kristen: "Uh, yeah! This should be your NaNo Novel. It's a great story. If you don't write it, I will."
After this, she took time to get to know me. We have a lot in common--a shared faith in Jesus, health issues, a clean-eating lifestyle, a book crush on Mr. Darcy. At one point she laughed and said, "By the end of this, we'll be telling each other our deepest, darkest secrets and braiding each other's hair."
I love her. Sarcasm, bluntness, and all.
And I love the Lord. He's so incredibly good. So faithful.
And that's why I'm participating in NaNoWriMo when I "should" be editing my novel.
Beta Reader 3 sent this text after I told her my plans:
This process is fascinating to me. Grueling, and maybe even sanctifying, for you, but fascinating as a 3rd party participant.
True, dat. The grueling, sanctifying part, anyway.
I don't love that I need to write another book and do a major rewrite on Eleora before I can, in good conscience, place it in your hands. Waiting, working (and reworking and reworking and reworking)--it's hard. But it's life.
(Which brings me to a small tangent: Writers aren't the only ones who need beta readers. We all need someone to edit our lives. I encourage you to give someone, maybe a handful of people, permission to offer insight into your story because we just don't possess the objectivity to see ourselves as we are.)
All in all, this ripping apart of my
Speaking of not being alone, if you have a novel burning inside of you, why don't you join me and the 300k+ other writers who will be writing themselves into a frenzy next month? Sign up here. If you're 17 or younger, sign up for the Young Writers Program here. Make me your writing buddy, and we'll encourage each other all month long!
Do you have an idea for a novel? Have you ever participated or considered participating in NaNoWriMo? Have you ever won NaNoWriMo? Do you need a few tips to get going or have writing tips to pass along? Share your thoughts, questions, and experience in the comments below!
I had become addicted. And let's face it. I'm not the only one.
Have you seen the haunting photographs from Eric Pickersgill's project Removed? Oh my word, what an indictment!
It's a sad deal when we take something good and make it ultimate. Social media is purposed to bring us together, but when we look to it for validation and use it as an emotional numbing agent, it divides us.
That's what happened to me. So to break my habit, God put me in social media rehab for eight months. Here's an overview of how that went:
Facebook Rehabilitation Diary:
Day 1: Good day. Withdrawal set in this evening, manifesting in agitation and a pounding headache. Apparently, Facebook withdrawal is a real thing. Who knew?
Day 2: Devastating news for our family. Glad I'm not on Facebook.
Days 3-10: Undulating between rage and depression with almost no in between. Trying very hard to be a supportive wife and mother. Wrestling with God over the first few chapters of Job again. I was one chapter from the end of the book, but my heart is in chapters 1-3. So thither I return.
Week 1: Rediscovered Pinterest. In my defense, I'm using it to learn how to write a better book. Mostly. Also, I discovered cat memes.
Week 2: Lonely. Had things to say and no one to say them to. I texted instead. That helped. Can't go outside or stand near the door because of the cold. So depressed all I want to do is eat and sleep. Since I don't have FB, I spend free time doing novel research.
Week 4: Not as angry now. Seeing good come from the bad. Stronger relationships with B and the kids. Spiritual growth in B. Began Draft 2 of my novel.
Month 2: Beginning to crawl out of The Pit of Despair. Family vacation. Hit my writing stride.
Month 3: Look how much I can accomplish without FB! Look at all these inflammatory events I'm missing! All the stress I'm avoiding! What is this new, fabulous world?
Month 4: Turns out...to be accepted by an agent and sell actual, real-live books, I must have an author platform, which includes FB, Twitter, and an active blog. Bubble busted.
Month 5: Draft 3 of my novel complete. It's probably time to return to Facebook. Resistance. Anxiety. Avoidance.
Month 6: Suddenly realized I'm lonely. Returning to FB now would be like a recovering alcoholic strolling the liquor aisle after his dog died.
Month 7: Working on face-to-face relationships. Draft 4 in progress. Facebook return imminent.
End of Month 7: Submit manuscript to beta readers. Deep breath.
What I Learned:
While nothing can replace the people in front of me, there's something truly grand about the ability to connect with human beings all over the globe. My best friends live out of state. I've met some incredible people who live in other countries. I missed them while I was away.
We don't have time to keep up with every person we care about. In our fast-paced culture, everyone is swamped. During the eight months I was away, I talked to my best friends maybe 2-3 times each and saw almost no one outside of immediate family. Every now and then I would get a text or hear from mom that someone missed me or wanted to know how I was. People didn't stop caring just because I was away. Neither did I! But without Facebook, we no longer had a convenient way to check in.
Facebook stresses me out. It's not just the drama over politics, current events, and what Christian women consider acceptable entertainment (read into that what you will), though that's plenty bad for sensitive folk like me.
The main reason Facebook stresses me out is because I walk through life with this strange, genetically-rooted complex which makes me believe every vague or negative status and delayed private message response is my fault and that I somehow offended this person and I must do something to make it right.
4) Facebook hiatus doesn't automatically strengthen face-to-face relationships.
It's far easier to swap addictions than it is to learn new habits. I struggled with this throughout my hiatus. If it wasn't FB, it was Pinterest. Or music. Or Netflix. Or my novel. I had to work to connect.
Though my health is stable now, life is still hard. Painful, even. It's easier to self-medicate with technology (since I can't do it with food, liquor, or medication) than it is to acknowledge the pain, process it, and relate to others.
5) The world keeps spinning with or without me.
For eight months I was invisible to nearly everyone except the people under my roof. And the world didn't end. Everyone was fiiiine. (I know. I can't believe it either.) I find this both humbling and comforting.
6) Now that I'm clean, I enjoy Facebook more. I'm free to enjoy the gift without the gift possessing me. Which is way more fun.
All in all, I loved being away and I love being back. The thing that was poison to me in January is a treat to me now. And that's a good place to be.
What do you think? What pros and cons does Facebook hold for you? Is its cultural impact mostly positive or negative? Does it connect us or divide us? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Confession chased the heels of awakening.
Mom gave me that look. The dimple pronounced itself. The corner of her mouth turned up. And those baby blues flashed her thoughts like a neon sign--"Finally, I can get this off my chest."
See what I mean? WHAM! With a side of sugar.
Her reply was both simple and profound --"Tell people what you want."
Initiative. It's hard, folks, but somebody has to take it.
We're shy. We introverts are comfortable enough with our friends. Within our own circles, we may be the life of the party. But throw us into a room full of strangers, and we speak to no one. Because we are overwhelmed by all the bodies and the stimuli, and small talk creeps us out.
We're self-consumed. I'm not talking about people who can only talk about themselves here. I'm talking about the ones who just lost a job or found out their mother has cancer or whose kid is self-destructing. Everyone has their own stuff. When we're preoccupied like that, it's difficult to even see outside of ourselves, much less connect with another person.
We lack confidence. Connection is risky. Will they like me? Accept me? Hate my guts and trample my heart?
And then there are people who are just downright intimidating. We all know a few.
For one reason or another, I've always been one of those people.
Until a few years ago, people often assumed I was a goody-goody, know-it-all, pretty-girl snob they couldn't relate to. Don't believe me? Here are a few things real people have actually said to me. In earnest:
"They hate you because you're a goody two-shoes."
"I'm insanely jealous of you! You always know what you want out of life, and you're able to make it happen."
"Gah--you're so pretty. I hate you."
"Before I met you, I thought you were one of those weirdo Bible-thumpers and that we could never be friends."
"I thought you were a snob."
(I was always bewildered and devastated by these comments, but I think I understand them better now. As a defense mechanism, people will reject you before you have a chance to reject them. In the end, we're all after the same thing--acceptance--and we're scared to death it will be denied. This is why we need Jesus. In Him, we are accepted by God. God's perfect love casts out fear, and when we're unafraid, we can withstand the risk of rejection because there will always be One to accept us.)
I'm not sure how I'm perceived now. People don't feel as free to comment as they did before. But here are my best guesses:
- A walking reminder that life can go terribly wrong.
- A hypochondriac.
- A drama queen.
- FRAGILE. Do Not Touch.
If I want community, I have to work harder at it than a normal person.
So here's what I want:
- I want you to approach me. Unless you bathed in perfume, peanut butter, or a pool of rubber bands. In that case, try again later.
- I want you to stop feeling intimidated by my struggles. Feel free to share your own. My struggles bore me. Let's talk about you!
- I want you to call me, text me, and invite yourself over for tea.
- I want your kids in my house. Bring them with you.
- I want you to accept my invitations. I won't invite you if I'm not sincere.
- I want to feel happily exhausted at the end of a good visit.
- I want a hodgepodge of friends and family to come over, sing hymns, and have communion with me. I'll provide the rice crackers and hibiscus tea.
- I want to feed people.
- I want you to ask favors of me. Trust me to say "no" if I can't say "yes."
- I want more velvet hammers in my life.
Maybe I'm not the only one...
It occurs to me that maybe I'm not the only one who has room to improve in the realm of relationships. Maybe we could all stand to be a bit braver, more selfless, more intentional, and harder to offend. Maybe we should all attempt a little warmth and vulnerability so people aren't so intimidated to approach us.
Maybe we could all stand to take a little initiative with the people in our lives. Just sayin...
A large part of that is necessary for my health. If I leave my house, I can bank on returning at least a little bit sick.
By "a little bit sick," I mean I have to crawl into bed for a while, my energy is zapped, and I experience a variety of discomforts, which may include swelling, asthma, severe headache, joint and tissue pain, dizziness, loss of balance, blood pressure drops, fainting, insomnia, and/or fever.
And then, there's always the risk of returning home "very sick," which means death and I brushed shoulders along the way. I'm happy to report that hasn't happened in a while, but there's always the risk.
You see why I don't get out much.
Another part of my isolation was self-imposed. I withdrew from social media because I felt doing so was in the interests of myself and my family.
I was right.
January, February, and March leeched the life out of me. It was a difficult time for all of us, and the scant energy I had needed to go to Brandon and my kids.
My memory blocks seasons of extreme difficulty. All I remember from that time is anger, hollowness, and a weariness so deep death sounded good.
Also, God. The grappling, the crying, the fight for grateful living. Exhilarating answers to prayer. Growth. Painful, excruciating growth.
Oh! And Gilmore Girls. God bless Gilmore Girls.
The final part of the isolation was inevitable. God gave me a book to write, and guess what--you have to write in isolation. There's no other way. Without going bonkers, anyway.
Those lonely months with nothing but God, my family, my characters and their story restored my strength. Solitude was just what I needed. Funny, isn't it, how the Great Physician never gets the prescription wrong?
A man's physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man's hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called "falling in love" occurred in a sexless world.
Thus, I conclude that if I desire community, community exists. Even for shut-ins. Even for me. And based on what I know of God and the Bible, community is good and necessary. We are built to need each other. So I don't have to worry about whether or not the desire is right.
But what does community look like for someone like me?
I don't believe God would awaken me to thirst just to let me die. I'm thirsty so I'll drink.
So the question isn't "Can I attain community?" but "How will I attain community?"
Which is something I'm figuring out as I go.
- I'm officially Facebook sober and in a much better place than I was in January. I really enjoyed my time away. So much so that I considered NEVER going back. There are things I am so. glad. I. missed. (Someone's saying "amen" somewhere.) And yet, it's time. It's as needful for me to return as it was for me to leave. So, hey y'all! *waves* (You can also follow me on Twitter.)
- My marriage is the healthiest it's ever been. We've had some hard knocks this year, but the Lord has used them to bond us in incredible ways. Brandon has really grown in the Lord. It's thrilling to watch. I am humbled and grateful for the bad that has worked for good.
- I had a GREAT summer. I felt almost good. Seriously. The best I've felt in more than four years. I ate tomatoes and watermelon. No insect stings of any kind. No emergencies. I even took a weekend trip to Baton Rouge to see my mentor Dixie Perry. I did exceptionally well.
- I gave the kids a few piano lessons this summer. I also taught Micah to read. Without losing my will to live.
- My annual end-of-summer health nosedive happened a bit early, but the plummet was less harrowing this time because A) I expected it and B) It wasn't as bad. The most annoying thing is I've begun reacting to sweet potatoes, and pardon my French, but that just sucks.
- I've been to church six times since June. I've only left sick twice (the last two times, actually), and each time I was only down for the rest of the day. Miraculous.
- I sent out my novel to beta readers yesterday. All 17 of them. (What was I thinking?) Mom and Brandon read it. They loved it. But you know, they're partial, so we'll see what the others say. (You can read about my "writing a novel" experience here.) My current plan is to self-publish, which means I should have it out next spring or summer. It'll be a $2,000-$3,000 investment, so I will need you to buy a copy and tell your friends. Just putting that out there.
- Sara broke her arm last Wednesday. We have two fractures. Good times. We're just happy she gets to resume dance lessons next week...
...oh, and that the cast is pink.
- Micah is back to school and doing well. The dude has memorized two Robert Louis Stevenson poems, partitions like a whiz, and writes better than I do. We have to get him over this whole perfectionist thing though, or we will all lose our minds. Starting with me. (Prayers appreciated.)
A Journey Back into Community:
About a month ago, I woke to a keen sense of loneliness. It had been lurking in the grass for some time, and then pounced all at once.
I spoke with Mom about it. She smiled and said, "Well, you've been in isolation--writing your book--for months. Now that you're done, the novel is gone, and you're left with the isolation."
"So, what do I do?" I asked.
"Tell people what you want. Invite them back in."
Even before this, God was speaking to me about community. He hit me with the topic in conversations, blog posts, writing advice, and Bible study.
But I wasn't sure what He meant for me to do. I mean...I'm a shut in. I risk anaphylaxsis every time I walk out of the house. I often return home sick.
What do you mean, God?
While He hasn't handed me "The Shut-In's Five Step Guide To Community," He's dropping a trail of breadcrumbs, and I'm doing my best to follow.
My next few posts will be a series about what I'm learning and what I'm doing with what I'm learning and my questions as I go.
Mrs. Hall was a friend to Dixie's mother, Johnie, after she'd lost two young sons. A person who befriends someone lost in grief of that depth is, as Johnie said, "one of God's special people." Mrs. Hall didn't look too special. In fact, she scared lots of people away with her somber dress. But she was one of those rare individuals who gives the most generous gifts of all--time and attention--a legacy she passed on to Johnie who later passed it on to Dixie.
Dixie is my Mrs. Hall. She is definitely "one of God's special people." God is always using her somewhere, some way, with someone. Still, she makes time for me. And when I'm with her, she's all there, which is one reason our times together are always memorable. Dixie, in turn, inspires me to be a Mrs. Hall to someone else.
For four years, this oddball saint has lived, breathed, and left her heel prints all over my imagination. The weekend after I finished the second draft of my novel, my little family made the trip to Baton Rouge to see Dixie and her sweet husband Robert. On our last evening together, I asked to hear again the story of Mrs. Hall. As I listened, tainting Johnie's crock with the worst cobbler I've ever made, I knew I had to immortalize her with my pen.
Allow me to introduce you to someone whose faith continues to reverberate in the world more than 80 years later.
In honor of the woman "who prayed the stars out of the sky," the woman she loved through loss and despair, and my own Mrs. Hall, Dixie Perry:
Curled over the counter, Johnie panted around the wrenching in her stomach. It overwhelmed at the most unexpected times, triggered by the oddest things. Like the eggs staring up from the crock—a pair of bulbous, golden eyes. Raw flour powdered the counter where her hands had shaken. Tears fell into the sifter, forming tiny crater lakes in the soft mound. Wiping the perspiration from her brow, her gaze wandered to the shaft of sunlight warming the empty corner of the farmhouse where the floor was scuffed raw by toy cars and wooden trains
Dick would be hungry soon, and looking for the cup towel waving from the clothesline. But there would be no cake. Not until she could breathe.
Abandoning the task, she stumbled down the hall to her bedside and collapsed on her knees. Her hands clutched the cotton sheets as she wept. When words wouldn’t come, she reached for song, but melody strangled in her throat, hot and thick with anguish. She crawled to the piano bench, the perch from which she played and sang and so often found solace. But her hands trembled upon the keys, and no Aaron or Hur was there to steady them. Her God accepted hymns of sighs and sobs, but she couldn’t offer those. Not today. Her grief was her own.
The screen door squeaked open and clapped shut. Boots shuffled into the kitchen and paused. Johnie pushed her brow away from the cool wood of the piano, unsure of how long she’d sat there idle, and rose to fetch Dick’s milk.
Three ice cubes plunked into the glass. She slid it across the counter, unable to meet his eyes. “It’s all I have today.”
Arms damp with sweat, smelling of grass, and flecked with black earth wound around her. “You gotta come through this somehow, Hon. For the ones we got.” A large, calloused hand rubbed circles on her back.
“Sorry about the cake.”
“I don’t care about the cake.” Dick sipped his milk, studying her over the rim of his glass. With a sigh, he cocked his head. “Why don’t you call Mrs. Hall?”
Johnie squinted up at him, wiping tears. “Mrs. Hall?” What had made him think of her?
She’d summoned the nerve to introduce herself at the tent revival last week and only because Mr. Hall hadn’t come. The man had a reputation. While the rest of the community had stood aloof and wary, something about the tall, austere woman dressed in dreary hues from collar to toe beckoned Johnie. She’d liked Mrs. Hall in an instant. The old woman’s eyes echoed her own pain, though she imagined it was of a different kind, and yet there was a light in them Johnie hungered for. A light to be warmed by. Wistful fists clenched air. The prospect of Mr. Hall was too daunting.
Dick rubbed his sunburned neck. “Why don’t you call? If he’s not there, I’ll drive you.”
“But the supper—”
With a hesitant nod, Johnie straightened, and moved to the telephone. Gripping the receiver in one hand, she worked the crank with the other. A stern voice answered. “Operator.”
Despite the time she’d had to prepare, Johnie scrambled for what to say. “Mrs. Hall? This is Johnie Deal. From down the way. May I…may I call on you?”
A wave of static buzzed in the receiver. “Yes. If you come now.”
No questions. No comments. Just an invitation.
“I’ll be right over.” Hope flickered as Johnie returned the phone to its hook.
She turned to Dick. “Let’s go.”
Johnie tugged off her apron, and hung it on the peg by the refrigerator. The Texas heat slapped her face when she stepped outside, and dried the tears on her cheeks. The green GMC was warm enough to bake a pie. A gauzy layer of cotton did little to protect her bottom, and she winced as it touched the leather seat. A short, jolting ride down the hill brought them to her three surviving sons. They peered at her through the window, probably wondering about their cake. After offering them a weak smile, she focused on an old oak in the distance as Dick delivered his instructions.
Why did she pine when she’d been given so much? Why couldn’t she overcome the sadness as Dick wished she would? To forget would make life easier, but no matter how she willed, forgetting was impossible—blasphemy to her mother’s heart. God had given five priceless, unique souls, and God had taken two away.
“Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Her lips stumbled over Job’s lion-hearted declaration of old. He’d lost all ten of his children. Why couldn’t she conjure his faith?
The truck door slammed, and Dick patted her knee. “It’s been two years, Johnie,” he said. As if time touched a mother’s grief.
Her gaze flicked to him. Two years had greyed his hair and furrowed his brow. There was a weariness in his eyes that didn’t wane with sleep. They were his sons, too, but he compartmentalized his pain. He didn’t limp through life the way she did. It hurt not to be understood by the man she loved. By the man who loved her. It hurt to be alone.
A series of gravel roads brought them to the Hall’s homestead. Dick turned to her. “I’ll be back for you in an hour.”
He may not understand, but he cared. She squeezed his hand, and crawled out of the truck.
Uncertainty attacked when her feet touched the ground. What was she doing here at this strange woman’s house?
A gust eddied down the drive, kicking up dust and herding her toward the front door. The porch step groaned under her weight. Swatting a wasp, she knocked. The house quivered as feet approached from the back. Rusty hinges groaned, and Mrs. Hall squinted out, adjusting the spectacles on the bridge of her long, thin nose. An incisive gaze settled on Johnie’s face. Unsure of what to say for herself and too stricken for small talk, Johnie stared back.
Despite the heat, Mrs. Hall wore the same uniform she’d worn that night at the revival—a calf-length grey cotton dress, black cotton stockings, and black lace-up shoes. When she proposed a walk, Johnie’s eyes widened. “Are you sure? It’s awful hot.”
Looking past her, Mrs. Hall removed her apron. “There’s no finer cathedral than a blue Texas sky.”
Stunned by her insight, Johnie’s lips parted. “A walk sounds nice.”
Mrs. Hall’s head snapped to attention, her severe brow darkening. Johnie spun. As Dick backed out of the driveway, a black Ford crunched down the road.
Johnie’s stomach dropped to her ankles. Dick returned, and hope fizzled. She’d have to leave now.
Mrs. Hall’s grey eyes saddened. “You’ll try me again tomorrow, won’t you, dear?
Swallowing, Johnie nodded. “Yes, ma’am. What time?”
The Ford pulled up beside the GMC, and Dick climbed out. Heat rose into her cheeks for Mrs. Hall’s sake. Mr. Hall was mean as a west-Texas rattler, but there was no need for Dick to escort her to the truck. But instead of retrieving Johnie, Dick ambled over to the Ford, smiling. Mr. Hall emerged wearing a fierce scowl, but shook Dick’s extended hand. Mrs. Hall looked on, frozen in place. The corner of her right eye twitched.
The men muttered so low Johnie couldn’t make out what they said. After a moment, Dick shot her a pointed look, and relaxed, arms folded, against the side of the truck. Mr. Hall never dropped his scowl, but seemed more interested in Dick than his wife or Johnie.
Her lips pursed, Mrs. Hall took Johnie’s arm, and led her off the porch to a worn path in the scraggly grass, which crackled in the sun. With every step away from the house, the sky stretched wider. Lonely mesquites dotted the open prairie here and there. There was a fullness to the emptiness. When Johnie breathed, she tasted God on the air. Lulled by the rhythmic grinding of pebbles under Mrs. Hall’s one-inch heels, Johnie startled to her voice. “Your soul’s ailin.’”
Those soft, grey eyes were sharp. “Yes ma’am."
“Heard about your boys. There’s no pain like the death of a child."
Tears pooled in Johnie’s eyes, threatening to spill over. How had she known? Were the losses tattooed on her brow? But of course people talked, especially in small, southern towns.
Mrs. Hall’s bony hand slipped into hers. “May I pray?"
And Johnie knew why she’d come.
“Please.” She closed her eyes, content to be led, thankful conversation wouldn’t be required.
Mrs. Hall didn’t begin right away. The intentional silence of a gathering thunderstorm crackled around them, raising the hair on Johnie’s arms. When Mrs. Hall spoke, her voice, feeble with age, transformed—not in volume but in clarity. “Bow down your ear to me, O Maker of the heavens and the earth, not on my account but on account of your Son, who lived the life I should’ve lived and died the death I should’ve died.
“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name we give glory. Blessed be the name of the Lord, who does whatever He pleases, who thunders marvelously with His voice, who sends out lightening where it should go, who commands the morning and shakes the wicked from the earth as crumbs from a tablecloth.”
Johnie opened her eyes, half-expecting dark clouds to form overhead, cueing a family to rise from their picnic and shake out the red and white checked cloth.
“It was you who laid the foundations of the earth. You who formed the universe from nothing. You who called light out of darkness. You who summoned land from the deeps. At your word, even the driest, weariest ground yields fruit and herb.”
Thirst ached Johnie’s tongue. Her heart was such a wilderness, a land she believed—at times—to be forsaken by God. And yet even the rocky soil below her feet brought forth the sweet-smelling grass swishing against her skirts and the mesquite shading the jack rabbit at her right. All at the Lord’s command.
“The stars shine in the night sky as signs for seasons and the passage of time, reminding us there are songs in the night if we will only listen. Your finger looses the cord of Orion and leads the Great Bear and her cubs home. Your palms, engraved with our names, shaped the sun and moon, and the clouds ride upon your breath. You call every creature into being and ordain the number of its days.”
A sob hung in Johnie’s throat. How could so few days be right? Even in a world gone wrong?
“Your eye sees the cattle on a thousand hills and the sparrow when it falls. You watch over the lowly ant and hunt prey for young lions. You act as midwife, overseeing the birth of every wild thing. You attend the deaths of your saints.”
In her mind, Johnie saw the Lord resting a hand upon the brow of each son as he lay dying, extending it to escort them from one world to another. But why? Why take her little boys?
“What is man that you are mindful of him? The son of man that you visit him? Yet you formed us in your likeness. You breathed air into our lungs. In you we live and move and have our being. You gave us dominion over all creation, and honored us with eternal souls that we might know you. And when we rebelled, you stooped to the ash heap we made of this world to lift us poor and needy from the dust.”
Mrs. Hall knelt and gathered a handful of fine gravel in her free hand. It sifted through her fingers, carried off by the wind.
Such was life. A vapor. Gone in a blink. It continued, even when Johnie wished it wouldn’t. Man slept, his flesh marrying to the soil, and the gospel marched on. God is—always—in spite of the brevity of mankind. She gasped at the pain of impaling truth. It hurt her human sensibilities. And it was good, for in that pain, she let the other go.
“You cast off your crown to seat us with princes. And what are we, Marvelous King, but little dogs under your table? And yet you bid us feast by your side. You are a God we can touch, and you invite us to taste and see. To enjoy you with all our senses. So we eat the Bread of Life, we drink your bitter cup, and comfort ourselves with the sweetness of your word, which is as honey on our lips.”
As Mrs. Hall praised God’s word, His promises came to Johnie’s mind—When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned…He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.
It seemed to Johnie that Mrs. Hall could hear her thoughts. “I know, O Lord, that your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness you have laid affliction on our backs, have caused men to ride over our heads, have brought us through fire and through water. Be merciful to us that we may see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Deliver us in our affliction, and bring us out to rich fulfillment.”
Johnie felt honored by Mrs. Hall’s candor. Most of the women she knew never showed their slip, much less their heart. And yet on this first visit, Mrs. Hall shared her pain through prayer.
A tear slipped from the corner of Mrs. Hall’s weathered eye and trickled along a wrinkle in her cheek. She fell silent, her gaze fixed upon the heavens. Stars blinked awake, and a crescent moon rose over the hills in the distance.
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens! Praise Him, all his angels! Praise him, sun and moon! Praise Him, all you stars of light!”
And the stars answered the call to arms, streaking across the dusky sky, and fell toward the horizon. One, two, three.
Johnie and Mrs. Hall stopped, faces upturned, marveling at their God and all he had made. Marveling was medicine. It didn’t take away the pain—nothing but heavenly reunion could do that—but it made the pain bearable.
Johnie breathed. Beauty danced before her eyes. The earth was full of goodness again. Her lungs filled with a shout she couldn’t contain. “Praise the Lord!"
The grass caught her words and whispered them across the plain.
Sensing the need to return to her husband, Johnie led Mrs. Hall homeward. Together, they sang doxologies with the sunset until they were reproached by Mr. Hall’s scowl.
On the ride home, Dick asked, “Well? How was it?"
Tranquil, Johnie relaxed against the headrest. The smile came naturally. “That woman can pray the stars out of the sky."
“And stars into those sky blue eyes.” He grinned.
Taking his hand, she kissed it. “Thank you.”
The moment she arrived home, Johnie donned her apron, and whipped up the batter for the pound cake. While it baked, her hands gently worked lard and buttermilk into flour. A batch of cathead biscuits joined the cake in the oven. She fried up a pan of sausage, mixed gravy from the drippings, and sliced several tomatoes, thanking God for the bounty and stomachs to fill. Her four ravenous men rewarded her with contented grunts and moans as they ate. Music to her mother’s heart. And when the dishes were washed and toweled dry, she sat at the piano and played her favorite hymns.
Snow dusted the prairie before Johnie visited Mrs. Hall again. And again, Johnie came to her limping and left with a steadier gait. For their next walk, God rolled out the blue carpet. Bluebonnets leapt to life from the barren wasteland around them. The time after that, Johnie herself had blossomed. She rubbed her round belly, praying the child inside could hear the praises to the God who gave them both breath. Even the breaths hard to take.
Years later, when Mrs. Hall had gone the way of all the earth and joined her Maker, Johnie’s seventh child—her only daughter—asked how she’d survived the loss of her two sons.
With a soft smile, Johnie recalled the faithfulness of her God and his servant. “I wouldn’t have. If not for Mrs. Hall.”
The reason? It is finished:
You might think I'm proud of that word count. I'm not. I really wanted my novel to be 90,000 words, which is a good word count for a first time novelist. 90k words is marketable. My novel wanted to be 115,000 words. We are still in a fight.
You know what I'm proud of? FINISHING. And the fact that it's nothing like the first draft.
Oh, lawd, that first draft.
Draft two (three?) is a very distant cousin of draft one. Like of the fifth or sixth variety. They could marry, but shouldn't because that first draft is good for one thing. Bonfire kindling. That's right, folks. Draft one is scheduled to burn at the stake this fall.
And no, you can't talk me out of it. My greatest fear right now is that draft one will outlive me.
So...what is writing a novel like? Rainbows? Unicorns? Sometimes. Not really.
It's also six speckled notebooks falling off the hope chest at the foot of the bed, scaring the crap out of you, every night. (Right, B?) It's also sleep deprivation and evolved self-flagellation. It's lonely and frustrating and terrifying and hard and one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done in my life. As in "Oh my gosh, I'm addicted, can I PLEASE subject myself to this sweet torture as long as I live because I will never be able to stop and I don't want to and I don't think I should" exhilarating.
It's also a lot like walking with Jesus. Some days, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the flowers sweeten the air. Other days, a tornado rips through and you face the fragility of what you built. But most days are slow, steady work.
You show up at the appointed time and you write. Or try very hard to write. And you learn to be satisfied whether you wrote 500 words or 1,500 words, all the while realizing those words may or may not serve your story and you might have to light them on fire before you're through.
My favorite part of this experience is how it has enriched my walk with God. He inspired the story during August 2013 while I was reading an entry from Sarah Young's Jesus Calling. An image came to mind, and two years later it's just as clear.
(Stephen King doesn't know where his ideas come from. I do. Mine, anyway.)
At the time, I wasn't well enough to jump in, so I filled a notebook with maps, character names, and plot ideas until I was well enough to write. I began June 16 a year ago. Today, I'm two (three?) drafts down with a minimum of two more to go.
Beyond inspiration, the Lord supplied me with incredible sustaining grace to see me through the process. Being the kind of sick I am, it's a big deal for me to give up my rest time while the kids nap. But I did. And it was hard, but not impossible. The Lord held me up because He's been in it since before it began.
And here's the best part. I began going to Him in prayer with my story problems. I would hit a plot hole or a weak character motivation and just couldn't figure out a solution. During my prayer time, I took the problems to the Lord, and more often than not, He would have it solved before it was time to write that afternoon.
The most noteworthy instance happened about three or so weeks ago. I was a few thousand words shy of the ending and totally stumped. My confidence had plummeted because so many problems had arisen. My entire manuscript suffered an ailment I couldn't diagnose and had no idea how to fix. So I told it to Jesus.
Two days later, while I was in the tub (where I talk to Him), clouds parted and angels sang. (Not really. Well, maybe if I was a cartoon.) The Lord presented a solution that not only filled my plot holes and helped me write my ending, but also added intrigue to the story and put the plot points just where they needed to be.
(Well-timed plot points are part of story structure, which is the science behind the craft. You can't write a good book without it.)
Wonderful, right? YES and ugh. Because I had to go all the way back to the beginning and make changes. (Hence the reason the draft I just completed may really be draft three and not draft two.) Some changes were small. Some were HUGE. Like I had to rewrite sections, obliterate others, and create brand new scenes. A new character came into being. I love him. And I now have room for a trilogy, an option I just may take if not right away.
And my story grew about 15,000 words.
But it's so much better, so much closer to the story I'm trying to tell. I'm really proud of it, and that's a big statement for a self-deprecating perfectionist like me.
For now, I'm on vacation. While Brandon and mom alpha read, I'll catch up on Call the Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, Wolf Hall, and SYTYCD on the DVR, watch a few movies I've been wanting to see, read someone else's writing. I'll nap.
And after they get back to me with their critiques, I'll begin work on draft three (four?), which will go out to beta readers sometime in September. I hope.
While the beta readers work, I'll plot out my next novel! Woohoo!!!!
I'll revise again based on what the beta readers tell me, and then begin agent hunting. Seems like a good autumn activity, don't you think?
Okay, that's enough words from the wordless wonder. Tired now.
And very, very happy to be DONE.
How is she already three? The days, weeks, and months scurry by in a white blur without a proper greeting, and they never stay for tea. Tomorrow is always the most important date. No time to say hello, goodbye. And before I know it, a season's gone.
How is she only three? So much life has been lived. So much new has come into our lives. Surely she is halfway through childhood by now.
But no. She's three--already three, only three.
I tell the kids Micah is the boy I always wanted and Sara is the girl I never knew I needed. But God knew. When I was still a child myself, He whispered her existence into my imagination.
During my homeschool years, I wrote prolifically--for my age, anyway. I followed some kind of curriculum which offered lots of creative writing prompts, and loved every minute. I wrote short stories, sketches, journal entries, plays, and poems. I discovered a few of these assignments when I went through my old keepsake box Dad left for me to go through or toss. Most of the art projects were trashed. I am no artist. But I kept almost everything I wrote. I didn't read it all or even most of it, but one single-paged sketch caught my eye:
Sarah, a cute, sweet child of three, loved to help her mother cook. Most of the time she just stirred cake batter and maybe every now and then, her mother would let her crack eggs and drop them in.
Well, one day, when her mother was taking a nap and her father was at work, she decided to make her parents a big [surprise] cake all by herself.
Her mother had always told her to wash her hands before she cooked, so she did. Then, she got out a bowl and the cake mix.
She knew that milk must be put in cake so she dumped 1/4 gallon in the bowl. Then she got out some eggs, cracked them on the side of the bowl, dumped them in, and threw the shells across the room. Last, she put in the chocolate cake batter and then she leaned over and started to stir. Some of her soft, blonde curls got into the chocolate concoction.
She decided the spoon wasn't working [too] well, so she started using her hands and she knocked the bowl over! She put her chocolaty hands to her face and started to cry.
Her mother was awakened, and she got up to see what was wrong. She walked into the kitchen [which] was now covered in chocolate. She looked down at Sarah who was also covered in chocolate. All she could see was Sarah's big brown eyes brimmed with tears.
She knew this time she would not punish Sarah.
There is no date on the paper, but judging by the handwriting and style, I wrote it around 1997. I was probably thirteen.
Fourteen years before she was born, I wrote about my daughter.
Guys, it's her! The name is spelled differently, but it's her! Both Saras like to help their mom in the kitchen. Both girls like chocolate, cake, and chocolate cake. Sara is just independent enough to try something like this, and if I wasn't standing over her every moment, real life Sara's baking style would closely resemble shadow Sarah's.
Big brown eyes. Soft, blond curls. I saw her before she was a thought in my mind. She was God's dream before she was mine.
I'm almost certain the day my immune system shifted was the day I gave birth to her. The labor and delivery was considered to be perfect--no complications--but something went wrong in my body three years ago. I felt it.
So it was the day the darkness sniffed me out that God wrote Sara into my story with all the light and laughter she would bring.
God knew I needed her. Our family needed her.
So today, we celebrate our little luminary. We thank God for seeing our need, and sending her to us.
We make chocolate cake! Per her request, of course.
And I ponder the last three years. How full and brief they have been with the little girl I unknowingly penned seventeen years ago.
Nerves are abusive little tyrants. They scatter well-studied, organized thoughts. They steal breath from the lungs and imprison the voice. At least I don't have to sing. Breathe. Just breathe.
Black fuzzballs reel across my vision. Am I crazy for doing this? I feel crazy.
The jury walks in and sits. I sense scrutinizing eyes at my back. Yes, I'm crazy. And they'll know it soon enough.
The Judge walks in, shrouded in black robes, features all obscured. A shiver trickles from my scalp to my knees. I can't see his eyes. His manner is entirely ambivalent.
"All rise! The Court of Future Crimes is now in session. His Imminence is presiding. Be seated."
In a non-committal tone, The Judge says, "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Calling the case of Melissa Keaster versus The Healer. Are both sides ready?"
"Ready, Your Honor." My words come out paper thin as I look into his eyes, wide-open voids of impenetrable darkness.
"Most assuredly, I say to you, 'I AM.'" The Healer's words steady me. I cast my eyes in His direction, and catch His reassuring smile.
I can do this. Even if they think I'm nuts, I can do this.
The jurors are sworn in. I look at whoever will look back steady in the eyes, praying they stand by their word to fairly try the case, to return a true verdict based on the evidence. So help them, God.
It's time for the opening statements. Oh God, help me remember everything. Help me to say it well.
The Healer mouths from across the too-wide gap between us--"Be brave."
I clear my throat, take a deep breath, and face them. "Your Honor and ladies and gentlemen of the jury: the defendant has been charged with the future crime of divine physical healing of the plaintiff, Melissa Keaster, which is to say--me."
A murmur rustles through the jurors, punctuated by skeptical grunts.
"The evidence will show this healing is foretold by several witnesses through prophetic words and dreams, and is affirmed in the defendant's own written testimony. The evidence will also show no other source can be responsible for this healing."
The Healer stands, and I see Him smile out of the corner of my eye. Pleasure rushes into my chest, washing away the fear. I long to be closer to Him, close enough to touch those love-scarred hands.
"Your Honor and ladies and gentlemen of the jury: the skeptics in this room will presume Me innocent until proven guilty. During this trial, they will doubt the evidence provided against Me. I desire you all to know the truth for the truth will set you free: I AM WHO I AM; I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I WILL HAVE MERCY AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I WILL HAVE COMPASSION. I require neither permission nor understanding to do what I will, not even from the plaintiff."
He turns fully to me now and grins wide. I return His smile, adoration radiating from my face.
"She's got a thing for him from the looks of it," says an old man juror from behind me. I turn and wink. He raises his bushy salt and pepper eyebrows, and purses his lips. I suppress a chuckle.
"The prosecution may call its first witness." The Judge's hollow voice pounds at me like a blunt force instrument.
"I call upon myself."
"Yourself," he repeats incredulously.
"Yes," I say with more assurance than I feel, and climb the stand.
I swear in, state my name, and lick my lips to no avail. My mouth is still too dry.
The jury appears curious. That's good.
"The following is a journal entry in which I explain my feelings regarding a then undiagnosed illness. On October 8, 2012, I wrote: 'I have every reason to believe that I may not make it out of this illness alive, yet the Lord keeps speaking to my soul--'I am willing to make you well.' I believe with all my heart that He will do it. I don't know when or how far down the rabbit hole I must travel, but I believe, Lord! Help my unbelief!'"
Tears leap into my eyes, unbidden. "Your Honor, I would like to have this journal marked as exhibit number one, and ask it be admitted into evidence."
"Does the defense have any objection?" The Judge peers down his nose at The Healer.
He shakes His head. "None at all, Your Honor."
"The journal entry will be admitted as exhibit number one."
I continue. "And on October 28, 2012, referencing Mark 1 from The Holy Bible, I wrote: "....A leper came to Jesus, asking Him to heal him, and said, 'If you are willing, you can make me well.' And Jesus replied with a touch, 'I am willing; be cleansed.' When I read those words....I felt the Lord saying, 'I am willing,' words to which I have held fiercely close to my heart as I have worsened and face[d] many dangerous crises in the past few weeks. However, I also felt the Lord impress upon my heart that my healing was not to be a simple touch, but a long, difficult process. 'Hard work' was the phrase He whispered. I am living in this long season of hard work, already exhausted, already depleted, depending moment by moment upon my Savior for the grace and power required for the task at hand. Only because of Christ can I do this. Without Him, this is beyond me. And I am so happy to have His promise that I will live...even on days that I don't want to. As I re-read Mark 1, the Lord gave me a new word from verses 29-31. When Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law, He took her by the hand, lifted her up, and she was well--'and she served them.' When the Lord heals me, I am not going to be allowed long to catch my breath. The Spirit use[d] those words to impress upon me that my season of illness will not be followed by a welcome and hoped for season of rest, but a season of service which will likely simultaneously try and fill my soul. I tremble with nervous excitement at this word...."
The second journal entry is made exhibit number two.
"On the nights of October 8th and 9th, 2013, two different people who do not know one another had dreams about me, dreams in which I was apparently healed. We will hear from them in a moment. Sometime between October 10, 2013 and September 24, 2014, I forgot both the dreams and my own belief I would be healed.
The reason for this, I believe, is two-fold: On May 27, 2014, I was diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Disease at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. There is no cure for Mast Cell Activation Disease, and it can be progressive. The disease also causes other incurable, autoimmune conditions such as fibromyalgia, IBS, and hypothyroidism, all from which I suffer. Moreover, the high risk of anaphylaxsis poses a formidable threat to average life expectancy.
Such a diagnosis is able to erase all hope of healing, but diagnosis isn't the only reason the impressions and dreams were forgotten. During the summer of 2014, in spending copious amounts of time with the defendant, I--the plaintiff--became so happy I no longer cared whether or not I would be physically healed. I rejoiced in the healings of others with only brief twinges of wist when I considered the absence of my own.
For months, I've managed my disease very well with a combination of excellent diet, detox routines, acupressure treatments, rest, stress management, medication, essential oils, and positive thoughts. Things are going well though symptoms are still prevalent and sometimes severe. Even if I continue in my efforts faithfully for years, I don't believe they can achieve full healing for me.
On Sunday, September 21, 2014, I told two people I didn't think the defendant would heal me. I believed He had other plans.
On Wednesday, September 24, 2014, Melissa Rogers, a friend of uncanny similarities to myself, who I met through very unlikely circumstances and who had just experienced a miracle of her own, shared with me a prophetic word: '[The Healer] loves you; He has healed you.'
I prayed sincerely over these words in order to discern their meaning and veracity. I was met with assurance from multiple sources outside of myself that I'd indeed be physically healed in addition to the spiritual and emotional healing which has already taken place. Only then did I remember the former impressions, words, and dreams, and I fully believe the defendant is guilty of the future healing of my body!"
By the end of this speech, I am standing. A fire smolders in my bones. Whispers swirl all about the room.
The Judge's gavel slams into the block. "Order in the courtroom!"
I stare at The Healer, breathless. His eyes are fiercely proud.
"Does the defense have any questions?"
The Healer stands. "Do you trust me, Melissa?"
"Yes," I say.
"Why?" His voice is so gentle, I could fluff it like a pillow and rest my head there.
"Because you loved me when I was unlovable. When I hated you, you died to save my life."
"And is it not I who holds your very breath in my hands and owns all your ways?"
"Do I not have a right to allow pain in your life?"
"Do I not have a right to send healing now? Even if you can no longer imagine a life without disease?"
"Yes." The word chokes on a muted sob.
I'm excused. The Healer extends a handkerchief to me as I pass Him on the way back to my seat.
I call Lyndsey Floyd Mouk to the stand. Lyndsey is a friend from college, a friend I haven't seen much of since college. She shares her dream from October 8, 2013--"[Melissa] was somewhere with a bunch of people and [was] holding and smelling a wildflower."
Mary Fran Stark, a friend several years my senior who I haven't seen since childhood, shares the dream she had the night of October 9, 2013: "I don't remember what [the dream] was about, but there were several people at your house and lots of kids."
I take the stand again.
"It should be noted," I say to the jury, "I strictly avoid crowds to prevent acute episodes in my illness, and I would never purposefully smell any flower due to the risk of mast cell degranulation. Thus, images of me standing in the midst of crowds and sniffing flowers indicates wellness. It should also be noted Lyndsey and Mary Fran do not know one another, and neither knew of the other's dream. Lyndsey shared her dream first through private message on Facebook. Mary Fran shared her dream the following day via status 'comment' on Facebook."
The Healer listens quietly through it all. His eyes twinkle as Melissa Rogers takes the stand.
Melissa shares pieces of our conversation, which took place on Wednesday, September 24, 2014, between the hours of 10:53a.m. and 12:22p.m. There are many details, but one central message: "He has healed you."
The Healer touches Melissa as she passes Him on her way out of the courtroom. Joy wells in my heart as I consider the vastness of His love. He loves each of us as if we're the only one in the universe, and He loves us both. She and I are both 'His Melissa.'
With a contented sigh, I call an expert witness.
I ask him, "How do you explain the present perfect tense of the declaration, 'He has healed you?' I currently suffer from symptoms."
Even now, there's a migraine lodged behind my right eye.
The man adjusts his horn-rimmed glasses excitedly, and explains, "Present and present perfect tenses are both commonly used in biblical prophecy. We find an example of present perfect tense in Isaiah 9:2--'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.' Scholars agree this prophecy refers to the birth of Jesus Christ, which occurred 700 years after the prophecy was written. We find explanation for this phenomenon in Psalm 119:89--'Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven,' meaning when God makes a promise, it's as good as done. Yahweh operates outside of time and space. He can do this because He created time and space. He is God. He sees the end from the beginning, and has ordered all things from the outset."
The Judge pulls and tucks his robes as if worried his skin is showing. I bow my head to hide my smirk, and sense The Healer's full-out grin.
Finally, the stand holds The Healer himself. He gives a brief testimony before I question Him. "All things work together for good to those who love Me, to those who are called according to My purpose."
My cells respond to the truth of His word.
I approach the stand and wonder--how many times have we reasoned together like this, staring into the face of the other, reveling in soul secrets and silent communication?
"Will you please tell the court who you are?"
My knees tend to buckle at this answer no matter how many times I hear it. One of the jurors experiences a similar effect, and falls out of her seat.
"What is your occupation?"
That smile again. The light of it shines so brilliantly the intimidation of The Judge is utterly forgotten. "Love. Life. Freedom. Peace. Abundance. Joy. Glory."
"Where do you reside?"
"Everywhere. I dwell between galaxies, and know motivations hidden from your own consciousness."
"What do you know of the human body?"
"Everything," He laughs. "I designed it."
"Will you please share with the court some of your well-known experiences with healing?"
He shrugs. "Sure--the leper in Galilee--the one you mentioned in your journal entry, actually. The centurion's servant. The blind man in Jerusalem. Jairus' daughter. The woman with the bleeding issue--the one you relate to so well."
"Are you experienced in healing incurable diseases?"
"I heal everything from terminal cancer to explosive tempers, from lost causes to wandering souls."
I bring an open Bible to the stand. "Is this your written testimony?"
"Would you say my illness has been 'a fast of your choosing?'"
"Have you been hungry and shared your bread? Have you shown castaways hospitality of soul? Have you clothed the naked, prayed the bound go free and the wicked be saved?"
The Judge checks The Healer. "The witness will not question the prosecution." But the reprimand is lost on our ears.
I swallow hard. We look into one another so intensely we forget where we are and what we're doing. We forget the world.
I answer Him with the look. The answer is for Him only. The jury need not know.
The Judge suspiciously forgets the original question, and doesn't bring it up again. Neither do I.
"No further questions, Your Honor."
An unknown voice sounds at the back of the room. "Are you sure?"
When The Judge does nothing to resume order, I turn. A man dressed in a perfectly tailored suit with shiny Berluti shoes and slicked-back hair slinks near the door. I don't recognize his face, but there's a familiar quality to his movement.
"Yes. Why?" I ask him
"Exactly," he replies, eyes gleaming.
I turn again to The Judge with an unspoken plea. He stares back insipidly, waiting for the scene to unfold.
The stranger sidles closer, and the scent of overly-sweet cologne wafts in my direction, cloying my senses. I choke and gasp and know--I have smelled his foul odor before.
"You won't ask for a sign? You won't ask the age-old question?" His lips curl up in a Cheshire cat grin. The effect is unnerving. I hold back a shudder and narrow my eyes in defiance.
"Come on--you know you want to ask," he hisses, inspecting his perfectly manicured hands.
My stomach turns, and I bristle. "If you are referring to The Question, I've already asked. Many times over. As for a sign, it would be ungenerous to ask for more than He's already given."
Sinister eyes swing sharp to meet mine. The man speaks slowly. "The jury might appreciate the answer, Melissa. Don't you hear it in their sighs? Why? Why? Why?"
Silence falls. The Judge and jury lean forward, chairs creaking, pressing me to ask.
There's no problem with The Question when honestly presented, but it isn't relevant to the case. I bite my lip. Accusation and curiosity burns in the jury's eyes, I see it. The Healer does, too.
The well-dressed man grips my arm. I attempt to pull away without success, and cry out. The atmosphere shifts at once. The Healer's eyes flash fire, and I'm suddenly released.
I know what comes. I brace myself.
The Healer stands to full height and thunders, "Who is this who darkens counsel with words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding--who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Have you commanded the morning since your days began? The dawn knows its place. Do you?"
Everyone cowers in their chairs, hiding from the whirlwind. At once, I long to kiss the floor with my brow and stand so close to the rush I feel my stomach drop.
I've heard His answer before, of course. One isn't desperately ill for more than two years without asking The Question.
And this is the way He always answers--with questions of His own. Questions which plumb the depths of the soul and expose all its secrets. They wrecked me, His questions. I'll never forget how they bashed me to pieces, repaired me, and set me to sail again on the feral ocean of divine sovereignty.
The once bitter waters are now impossibly sweet. I've learned to love His scary side.
The well-dressed man retreats. Even The Judge shows signs of life--or rather, surrender--as he squirms in his seat. The hall is silent again.
The Healer still stands, chest heaving and nostrils flared. His zeal is beautiful to me.
Eager to move the case along, The Judge clears his throat and addresses the jury. "Ladies and gentlemen, the prosecution must convince you of three things in order to find the defendant guilty of the future crime of divine physical healing: First, that the defendant has confirmed through His own testimony and the witness of others He will indeed heal Melissa Keaster of Mast Cell Activation Disease. Second, that the disease cannot be healed by any means short of a divine miracle. Third, that He indeed has the power to heal incurable disease."
The jury nods their understanding, but few are convinced. Caution emanates from their furrowed brows.
"Are you ready with final arguments?" The Judge asks.
No, I think.
But The Healer stands next to me now, holding my hand. Sensing my fear, He kisses my ear and whispers, "Those who wait for Me are never ashamed."
My words are tremulous and thick with tears. "Yes, Your Honor."
I face the jury once more. Believe with me.
I exhale hard. "Your Honor and ladies and gentlemen of the jury: The Judge has told you I must convince you of three points. The truth is...I can't."
Their dubious faces almost make me lose my nerve. I spur myself on--for them! For Him!
"We're dealing with the supernatural here, which means we're dealing with faith. Faith is the evidence of things hoped for, but these are things not yet seen. I lack rock hard evidence. I have nothing to offer you beyond the testimonies you heard today," I tell them, extending my empty hands and earnest eyes.
"My sincerest desire is for you to believe--not only in a miracle that hasn't yet taken place, but a Person--a Person wise enough to send a debilitating illness into my life, a Person powerful enough to take it away, and a Person good enough to stand with me through it all."
Pointing to The Judge, I continue, "Only he can verify or falsify prophetic claims, and he cares little how these proceedings turn out. I pray you care--not only for me but for yourselves! Have we become so jaded we no longer believe in miracles? I tell you--they happen every day for anyone with seeing eyes."
My gaze drifts over each face, and I know--they definitely think I'm crazy. And so I am.
"Please don't miss this." Tears cascade down my face, and for a moment, I cannot speak. The room waits on bated breath in order to hear what the crazy lady will say next.
Suddenly, the fire reignites my bones. The tears fall still, but my energies crescendo. "Go on, find Him guilty. Find Him guilty, and sentence Him to the exaltation and glory He deserves. Sentence Him to your own belief--to your own salvation. In sickness and in health, in death and in life, He is worthy to receive blessing and honor and glory and power forever!"
"She definitely has a thing for him," comes the loud observation from the old man juror who spoke before. "And you know what? I think the feeling's mutual."
The Healer says nothing in closing. He just kisses my forehead, and lets me dry my tears on His chest.
I wait trembling in His arms for The Judge to prove or disprove His crime. I'm afraid I look like a fool before them all. I'm afraid my soul will doubt if The Judge tarries. He sits so serene, so enigmatic without any concern at all for me.
He thinks he holds the power now, but I know better. I know the One whom I have believed--The Beginning and The End. The arms that hold me are everlasting. Right or wrong, they'll never let me go.
I plant a kiss upon His shoulder as I wonder--what will the jury decide?
- I turned 30.
When I opened my eyes this morning, I asked the Lord to be present in every moment of the day. That would be gift enough. I did not expect a literal gift from Him--
I went outside to hang Sara's diapers to dry in the sun. Brandon's trailer seemed like a good spot. Out flew an angry wasp feeling threatened by my close proximity to his home hidden below the wheel. My peripheral vision caught him coming in for the sting, but suddenly he deflected away from me, as if he had bounced off a surface I couldn't see. I think it was my "blue shield" I dreamed about almost 3 years ago. "Happy birthday to me, from God," I thought.
I shared the story with Mom who reminded me of Psalm 91. I have lived the truth of these verses for years, but it was the promise God makes to the psalmist at the end which brought me to tears--
“Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him;
I will set him on high, because he has known My name.
He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him,
And show him My salvation.”
And almost a whisper in my ear, "Happy birthday to you, from Me."
A week later, I hosted an (herbal) tea party in my own honor. You get to do that when you turn thirty, are too sick to go out, and are kind of eccentric.
- I have settled back into my routine.
- I have finally begun the first draft of my novel.
- I began my prescribed medications. Kind of.
I began Gastrocrom two weeks ago. This drug only contains cromolyn sodium and water. I have had no adverse reactions thus far. Praise God! If it works for me, my GI pain and swelling will begin to resolve in about a week or so.
- I am failing my dietary protocol. Which I still need to blog about.
- I'm getting "grounded." Explanation here.
- I have added castor oil packs to my health routine. Explanation here.
- I've been using my unique skill set to serve my sister.
- Grief continues to rock my boat.
- There have been two episodes of anaphylaxsis, one of which resulted in shock.
BAM! I was struggling for air. I knew it wasn't the raspberry leaf, which exposed the peppermint as the culprit. I had drunk so. much. of this particular blend the day before it is no wonder I was so ill after the party. Bummer. It was a good blend.
And then there was the freak peanut exposure this past Sunday night. Brandon and the kids wanted an Eskimoe's treat after completing a little errand in town. We went through the drive-thru. The window was on Brandon's side of the car. I detected a shift in my body during the transaction, but I had to do the whole self denial routine.
"You're not sick," I told myself. "That would be crazy. You are fine. You are fine. The swelling will subside. You are fine." I continued like this for the 15 minute ride home. I eventually believed myself, so I didn't understand when my blood pressure went on the fritz upon getting out of the car.
When things got bad, Brandon was outside talking to my parents. I was inside with the kids. I was able to take my rescue homeopathics and get a text to him before I was useless. By the time he began performing our tried and true rescue treatment, I was exiting reality--a cold place where it was painful and difficult to breathe, think, move, and obey--and entering the floaty space where it's warm and pleasant and everything is peaceful.
Shock is a siren song. Unless someone tethers you to the ship, you will bail. You cannot help yourself. B wasn't having it though. He says he yelled at me. I was vaguely aware of it, but it came to my consciousness rather muffled, as if I was hearing him from underwater. He demanded I come back, so I did. I am thankful the Lord spared me once again. I must have more to do! Praise God!
- I have learned to better appreciate the miracle of last summer because this year is no repeat.
In some ways, I am better than I was last summer.
In some ways, I am sicker than I was last summer.
Last summer was nothing short of miraculous. I was knocking on death's door, and then God just turned it around. I went from eating nothing to eating baby food to eating anything I wanted. Eggs? Every day. Tomatoes? No problem. Watermelon? For the first time in years. I could eat any food, any time as long as it came from our garden.
And the garden itself was a miracle. Dad and Brandon were first time gardeners. They only kinda sorta knew what they were doing. Everything planted thrived. Rain came at just the right times. June and July were just mild enough. The bugs were a minor nuisance, and were well-controlled without the use of any substance, organic or otherwise.
This year? Squash bugs destroyed our crop. Tomato worms are having a hey day. We even have bugs in our kale, which is weird. Dad is using an organic, essential oil-based spray to repel them, but it doesn't seem to be working. And with the exception of kale and the now gone broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and yellow squash, I am not tolerating anything very well.
I do not understand why the foods God used to bring me back to life last summer are now my enemies. I do not understand the complexities of why one crop is blessed and another is not blessed in the same way. I am not wise enough to guess the purpose of all this waiting, circling, cycling, and disappointment.
Why have I not been healed? I am doing everything right. With the exception of my tomato addiction, I eat perfectly. Well, except when I eat a bit of dark chocolate or have an almond flour treat for my birthday, but still! I detox, rest, sleep, exercise, get sunshine, manage my stress, and avoid triggers. I seek the Lord with all my heart. I pray, meditate, memorize scripture, and make my mind to dwell on things above. I want to be healed. I expect to be healed.
I am doing everything right, and I am still not well. Not even close.
Dear friend, this is life. We can do all the right things, and still not achieve the desired outcome. That is why we must desire a Person more than a circumstance. Someone who cannot change. An anchor for the soul.
Because here's the truth--
You can parent perfectly and your adult child may self-destruct.
You can make good health choices and your body may malfunction.
You can study hard and fail the class.
You can work hard and not land the job.
You can pray hard and not receive the desired answer.
You can do aaaaaaaall the things and miss the Whole Thing.
Now this doesn't mean we throw up our hands and refuse to invest. All things of worth require faithfulness. Laziness is not allowed. We have many seeds to sow. Marriage, motherhood, friendships, nourishment, health, career, craft, and our walks with the Lord all demand that we show up, game on, every day.
This week, Micah and I sat on the back porch and watched an afternoon storm roll in while Sara napped late.
"God brings the rain and makes it stop and makes the garden grow," he observed sagely as we listened to heavy drops pound the tin roof like a drum.
"That's right," I affirmed. "He brings rain and sunshine and gives growth to the seeds we plant. He makes all gardens grow, even the ones hidden inside of us." I touched the center of his chest.
"What kind of garden is inside of me?" he asked, eyes wide. "Will I grow vegetables?"
"No," I laughed. "You will grow fruit. Mommy plants the seed of the gospel of Jesus and the cross in your heart. Then God sends rain and sunshine and gives increase just like our garden out there." I pointed. "And after time, you will bear fruit--love, joy, peace, goodness, and faithfulness to name a few."
But it does not always work this way.
We are not as in control as we would like to think we are. We do not command life or death or cancer or disintegrating mast cells or squash bugs or people or rogue peanut particles. This is okay. Because the One who is in control is eternally, irreversibly good. He has our good at heart. He even takes the evil things of this world, and alchemizes them into good. It's a mystery, but it's true.
We must stop serving the god we want, and start loving the God Who Is. We must surrender our idea of good to His definition of good--the Church "conformed to the image of His [suffering] Son" (Romans 8:29).
For me, this means I show up. I do all the things God has tasked me with. I invest my heart, knowing that--yes--it may be broken. It is broken.
A friend told me this week she is hesitant to try gardening while she is already so busy and tired with little ones because she is afraid she would put in a ton of work only for the crop to fail. Oh, goodness--how her trepidation hits close to home. The threat is very real.
Disappointment is a bitter fruit. It's the risk we all take any time we do or love or work for anything. Christian or not, no one is exempt from the risk, but if you are a Christian, you can take comfort in knowing Christ drinks the wine of disappointment right along with you. If you are a Christian, you can rest your head on the pillow of promise--God is weaving your disappointment into an epic tapestry which will at its finish be a glorious work of art. You will one day gaze upon it in wonder, and you will agree--your suffering was not worthy to be compared to the joy you now know.
Life is a mixed bag of happinesses and disappointments, successes and failures, patterns and adjustments. It's devastating and magnificent and ridiculous and wonderful. I could never survive it without Jesus. And having tasted the exquisite joy of His presence especially in the midst of sorrow, I can tell you--I don't want to.
He is our Living Hope. He is our assurance that one day the disappointments will be no more, that all sad things will come untrue. Praise God this mixed bag is not all there is!
Our strawberry-blonde pilot wove his way between pillowy, cotton-bright banks telling lies about their density and ability to upset our craft. We bumped, but not much. We feel the chill of flying so high above the earth. Despite our discomfort, we are safe.
And He has taken it out of the way,
The thoughts, support, and well-wishes of others are nice, but not ultimate.
I am free! Jubilee has come! Jenny, these sick rags have finally fallen off! Praise God! Yes, yes--"God has been too good to me to play the victim anymore."